The Built Environment: Inflection and Reflection in the Shadow of Earth Day

This article originally appeared in TriplePundit and was revised in April 2024

Earth Day is over for this year, but what is arguably more important than the day itself is the day after—and the day after that (and the day after that).

Earth Day is a rallying cry for sustained action to drive progressive environmental trends. Last week, I spoke with Emma Stewart, Senior Manager of AEC Sustainability at Autodesk, to briefly discuss her latest thoughts on those trends.

Back in 1970, when I was a gawky young lad of 12, jungles in Southeast Asia were denuded with Agent Orange and set ablaze with bombs and Napalm while rivers burned in the U.S. from the unchecked effluent of industry and growing urbanization.

For me, the original Earth Day is, at best, a fuzzy memory. Nonetheless, my youthful innocence, Earth Day 1970 marked a watershed moment, what Stewart calls an “inflection point” of rapid and substantive change in environmental awareness, policy, and legislation.

Let the Sunshine In The Early ’70s and Environmentalism

The inaugural Earth Day came on the heels of Richard Nixon signing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and establishing the Council on Environmental Quality, the first cabinet-level environmental advisory post. Soon after, the EPA, the Clean Water Act, a revised Clean Air Act, and 1973 the Endangered Species Act were created.

In the early seventies, the realization of the impact of decades of environmental degradation on human well-being and health coalesced into what some consider the birth of the environmental movement (though the idea of conservation in the U.S. goes back to at least Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir). Even amid today’s gridlock that often ignores or belittles environmental considerations, Stewart argues that we find ourselves at a new crossroads four decades later.

The Built Environment: a New Point of Inflection

“It may“not be as ‘sexy’ ‘s a ’lean Water Act or establishing the EPA,” Stewart explains, “but I see what I think is a new inflection point that we’ll be able to look back on forty years hence and recognize as a period of important and substantial progress—much like we now look back at the early 1970s.”

Emblematic of that for Stewart is Denis Hayes. Earth Day aficionados remember Hayes as the co-founder and principal organizer of the original Earth Day. Now 69, Hayes has been an environmental trendsetter, focusing on sustainable development through the decades. Currently, Hayes is involved in designing a net-zero office building.

The Seattle-based non-profit Bullitt Foundation, of which Hayes is president and CEO, is breaking ground this spring on the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction. Once completed, the Cascadia Center will be one of the first mid-rise commercial buildings to achieve “living building” status.

Living Buildings: Net Zero and Beyond

Living buildings go beyond LEED with the Living Building Challenge. Version 2.0 of the Challenge incorporates a 20-point standard, including on-site 100 percent renewable energy production, water consumption from 100 percent harvested rainwater, and super-efficient electrical and mechanical systems. The Living Building standard begins with net zero. It extends sustainability to all aspects of how a building interacts and impacts its surrounding environment, from initial site selection, building design, and construction to aesthetics, human health, well-being, and transportation.

The Cascadia Center will be built to last 250 years, adaptable to changing needs and emerging technologies throughout its lifetime.

Emerging Policy Standardizing Sustainable Development

Projects like the Cascadia Center remain the ideal, the rare exception – for now. However, Stewart considers Hayes’ work a focal point for emerging public policy – both then and now. Even if the mainstream media doesn’t notice, significant stirrings point toward a shifting policy landscape. Stewart cites three examples as the core of the emerging trend:

  1. Energy Independence and Security Act (2007)
    Requires 3 percent per year energy reduction for federal buildings relative to 2003 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), or 15 percent by 2010 and 30 percent by 2015. Reduction of fossil fuel use reached 55 percent in 2010, 65 percent by 2015, and 80 percent by 2020. “This is an aggressive mandate,” Stewart explains, that serves as a “green proving ground,” incorporating the principles of Building Information Modeling (BIM) and the latest design technologies.
  2. Executive Order 13514 (2009) Directs that 15 percent of existing federal buildings and leases with more than 5,000 gross square feet will meet the Guiding Principles for Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings by 2015. All new federal buildings built after 2020 must achieve Net Zero Emissions by 2030, and all agencies must submit Sustainability Plans
  3. Better Buildings Initiative (2011) Sets the goal of 20 percent improvement in commercial building energy efficiency by 2020

With its vast building stock and power to influence and incentivize change through public policy, these Federal initiatives portend the integration of sustainable development into common practice—living buildings as the standard, not the exception.

Framing the Conversation (who said anything about global warming?)

Words matter. “Global warming” might send everyone to their prospective ideological corners, ready to fight (or retreat). In any case, there is no solution to climate change without addressing the sustainability of the built environment. It is harder to deny the importance and advantages of sustainable development, which Stewart summarizes in three words:


Efficient buildings are less resource and energy-intensive, significantly minimizing their environmental impact and saving the owner money.


Sustainable design defines the true triple-bottom-line costs of a building’s construction and use throughout its lifetime. Transparency adds value and operational efficiency.


Retrofitting and building the new “living” built environment is already a source of job creation and market differentiation that can spur economic growth.

Retrofitting and building the new “living” built environment is already a source of job creation and market differentiation that can spur economic growth.

Humanity’s Natural Habitat – Urban Environmentalism

“We are now a primarily urbanized society,” says Stewart, “Buildings represent the cheapest, most efficient path to economic and environmental sustainability.” But the message doesn’t resonate as much as it should.

“It’s a little abstract,” Stewart acknowledges. The problem is that there’s no “Cuyahoga River” on fire to grab our attention.

“Most people think of transportation” when considering environmental impact. While obviously important, transportation represents 26 percent of global energy demand. Buildings constitute 40 percent of global energy demand and 30 percent of demand growth.

Tesla is (was?) cool, and the Volt is a step toward the car of the future, but Stewart sees even more transformative trends on the horizon.

The buildings where we live and work will determine how – or if – we learn to create a livable, sustainable, prosperous, and thriving human society. Fortunately for us, says Emma Stewart, there are reasons to be hopeful as we build on the ideal of the first Earth Day, making it new again for a new century.

Photo by Mike Kononov on Unsplash

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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